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Board Endorses Draft Plan for NAEP Overhaul

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Washington

With the turn of the 21st century, the nation should receive its "report card" on schoolchildren's academic progress more often and more quickly than it does now, and on a predictable schedule, policymakers have decided.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress should also have a simpler design, and its reports should be more accessible and useful to their primary audience: the general public, not the research community.

Those recommendations are included in a draft plan that the National Assessment Governing Board approved in a meeting here May 10. The overhaul of the congressionally mandated assessment has been influenced both by user complaints and the need for cost-efficiency in a $32 million budget that is unlikely to grow.

Planning to launch a new system in 1999 or 2000 makes logistical sense, since current contracts to administer it run out after 1998 and NAEP will be up for reauthorization by Congress at about the same time.

The board is to vote on final approval of the plan in August, following three months of review and comment by the public and technical experts. Board members said they did not expect major changes in the document, which six members have worked on for 18 months.

'Overburdened' Test

NAEP is the only ongoing, nationally representative test of academic progress. It is given every other year to a sample of several thousand students in grades 4, 8, and 12, focusing on different academic subjects each time. It has also collected comparative data at the state level in participating states since 1990. The Department of Education runs NAEP, while the 26-member independent governing board sets policy for it.

If the assessment is to continue to give a useful picture of, for example, what 4th graders know and are able to do in math or how well 12th graders know their American history, it has to be improved, according to the governing board.

"The current national-assessment design is overburdened, inefficient, and redundant," the board's redesign plan says. "It is unable to provide the frequent, timely reports on student achievement the American public needs."

While the schedule is not mandated, NAEP by law is supposed to test in 10 subjects: reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, geography, civics, the arts, foreign language, and economics. But during the 1990s, tests in only two subjects--reading and math--will be given more than once using current tests and performance standards. Six subject areas will have been tested only once. No tests at all in foreign language and economics are scheduled during this decade.

The national assessment cannot do everything, the board's plan acknowledges, leaving policymakers to face trade-offs among desirable activities. Such trade-offs should not imperil the test's quality and credibility, the board emphasizes.

Tests should be conducted every year, the board says, and reading, writing, math, and science should have priority. Those tests should be given on a publicly released schedule. Other subjects should be given "on a reliable basis."

Quicker Response

The results of assessments are now reported too long after testing has taken place, the board says, appearing as much as 18 to 24 months afterward. That lag should be cut to six months, it says.

The board's plan says NAEP must be made more useful to states, which invest time and resources in the assessment, particularly in the state-level assessments. Responding to state complaints, the board recommends that they be given a reliable schedule for NAEP tests. The board recommends that reading, writing, math, and science at grades 4 and 8 be the top priorities for state-level testing.

To save money and avoid logistical headaches for states, the board suggests that each participating state's contribution to the national NAEP results be drawn from the samples of students tested for the state-level assessment. Currently, the national assessment draws a separate sample from those states to obtain national results.

The board's plan calls for simplifying most NAEP reports. The exhaustive, multivolume research reports issued for every test would only be done about once a decade. More frequently, results would be published in an abbreviated form, called a "standard report card," according to the plan. Special assessments focused on a particular issue or grade level could be reported as appropriate.

In a departure from an earlier draft, the board says only that NAEP tests should offer "an appropriate mix" between multiple-choice test questions and "performance" items that ask students to write out answers and thus cost more to score. Decisions about that mix should be driven by the nature of the subject area, the range of skills to be assessed, and cost, the board decided. The earlier draft discussed limiting the number of performance items. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1996.)

Writing Details

Also at this month's meeting, the governing board approved design specifications for the 1998 NAEP in writing.

Although a NAEP writing test was given in 1992, no specifications had been written from the framework developed for the test. The new criteria provide content and technical details to guide the assessment's design and the development of writing tasks for students.

The specifications, written by American College Testing of Iowa City, Iowa, also provide preliminary descriptions of achievement levels, or what students should know and be able to do at basic, proficient, and advanced levels. (See box, this page.)

Technical problems prevented the assignment of achievement levels to the 1992 NAEP writing results, officials said. The next 50-minute test will employ a total of 75 writing tasks across the three grade levels tested by NAEP, up from 22 in 1992.

"We're going to be able to say with confidence how good is good enough in writing, so the public will know whether they should feel pleased or alarmed," said Marilyn McConachie, a board member.

But only limited trend comparisons to 1992 will be possible, officials said.

The writing test, which will also look at some classroom work, may cost $18.4 million over five years, making it one of the more expensive NAEP tests. The need for each response to be graded by hand drives up costs, officials said.

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